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Investigate whether the Accelerated Reader Scheme and Star Reader Test has a positive effect on a child’s reading achievement.
An evaluation carried out in a primary school on the implementation of the Accelerated Reader Scheme demonstrates its efficacy in improving reading scores and reading ages for students who are less able readers. The literature review shows that while there is limited evidence on the scheme itself, which is derived from American schools settings, there is evidence which shows that similar schemes, which are targeted on reading development, and also schemes which integrate ongoing support and feedback (either personal or ICT based) are effective in supporting those who are falling behind national literacy standards. However, this study, which utilises marks and reading scores to evaluate the scheme, is limited in its applicability and in the usefulness of its findings. More research is needed into the underlying cultures and pedagogies which affect such reading interventions, and more depth and detail of pupil attitudes and responses are required to understand how such programmes affect student achievement in reading and in the longer term.
Children’s reading development is a key feature of overall literacy in the primary age group, and as such is subject to considerable governmental governance and input. Achieving standardised levels of literacy is seen as important in ensuring children reach developmental and cognitive milestones, and are properly prepared for secondary school when they move into this phase of their education. However, there are a number of challenges to supporting children to read, because even though this is a key element of their learning, children are often lacking in enthusiasm or confidence about reading, and do not take well to reading for pleasure. Similarly, school resources often mean that support for reading is less than optimal, particularly if teachers do not have enough time to devote to listening to children read and providing them with feedback and guidance.
This dissertation describes an evaluation of a new approach to improving literacy in a chosen age group within a primary education setting: the Accelerated Reader Scheme, which includes the Star Reader Test. This scheme uses computer-based resources to encourage children to read. Children take the Star Reader test, are assigned a ‘reading age’, and then are pointed to books associated with that reading age within the school library. Children read the books and then take comprehension tests, which demonstrate their level of learning and their progress. Students can access the website at Think.com to chart their progress and see their own attainment. The scheme originated in America, where its success within primary age schools was demonstrated, and has since been adopted in a number of schools in the United Kingdom. There is some literature to cite the benefits of the Accelerated Reader scheme, and a lot of examples of websites, weblogs and feedback demonstrating enthusiastic approaches to it in certain schools and locations.
This dissertation shows an evaluation of this scheme in one school setting in a socio-economically deprived area, and contains primary data on the implementation and effects of the scheme. A critical review of the literature was carried out, to explore the context of the scheme and its place within the pedagogy and practice of primary education within this country. The discussion of the scheme and its results takes into account current theory, and concludes with recommendations for future research and practice. A summary judgement of the efficacy of the scheme is included. The evaluation is based on reading result scores as discussed in the findings sections, and indicates where the scheme has been effective, and where findings were found to be other than those anticipated. The conclusions make recommendations for future research surrounding this intervention, and also explore some of the drawbacks of using such an approach.
A critical review of the available literature was carried out, in order to set the context of the study and evaluation, and to explore the current state of theory and practice. A literature search was first carried out, in order to identify the pertinent literature which could be used to inform the study. In order to do this, the author first carried out a ‘thought shower’ in order to identify key terms to be used as search words and search word combinations, then used these to search the literature, shortlist articles by abstract, and then select full text articles for reading and review.
The Critical Review
The changing nature of education, particularly within the state-funded sector, is such that there are emergent issues around the ways in which educational goals are defined and set, and the context of education. However, the concern of this dissertation is the effectiveness of interventions in relation to supporting reading competence in primary schools, and so the focus of the literature review is on reading competence, reading interventions, and factors which might affect reading and the success of such interventions. It was decided to take a broader approach to the literature review because there were very few primary studies which directly assessed Accelerated Reader itself, and therefore the understanding of the current theoretical and practical context needed to be explored in terms of this type of approach to reading competence.
The literature demonstrates that there are many factors which may affect children’s reading abilities and progress, not all of which are necessarily to do with the child’s cognitive or other abilities. Understanding these factors may be important in understanding the kinds of schemes and programmes which might support reading progress in all children. This review does not specifically address children with Special Educational Needs but does make some mention of them in relation to inclusive schools practices. Although published data presented by governmental and other official sources suggests that there have been significant improvements in reading and literacy overall in children in primary education, there are other authors who argue that this is not the case, and the tests and measured used have been ‘advantageously designed’ to reflect better on the current ruling party and its policies. While standards may be improving, it is suggested that these improvements are not as significant as they are claimed to be, , and that recording and testing processes are sufficiently biased to warrant an independent body being set up to monitor standards.
The introduction of the National Literacy Strategy may have something to do with changing responses to reading and even changing attitudes to reading, but this does not mean that the responses are overwhelmingly positive. One study suggests that the ways that children interact with reading and with books, and their attitudes towards books, are much more complex than the official guidelines and strategies might suggest. This study was a questionnaire study with a sample of 5076 pupils in Years 4 and 6, and found that attitudes towards reading, while generally positive, did appear to decline between the younger and older of the sampled age groups. Of the overall sample, it seems sub-sample of 2364 of these pupils were actually in the same schools where the same questionnaire had been implemented previously, in 1998, and it was found from comparison of these two incidences that “enjoyment of reading had significantly fallen over the five years, whilst confidence as readers had significantly increased over the same period”. It may be that these changes may have something to do with the introduction of the National Literacy Strategy, but it is argued that other, less popular explanations are also possible for this change, including differences in social life and differences in children’s exposure to other media and other forms of entertainment. What is interesting about this study is that children were enjoying reading less, but had more confidence in reading. This might reflect the outcomes based type of education that is now very much the standard with the UK context, and to this author, also reflects the fact that reading literacy is very much related to competence rather than true enjoyment of texts and of wider opportunities for reading. This might also represent a restriction of students to only reading ‘set’ books or texts, perhaps, which would possibly limit enjoyment and pleasure in reading.
Strategies towards improving literacy have taken many forms, but on significant change has been the use of classroom assistants, who specifically target reading and other deficits in children in general classroom settings. Interventions to provide extra support through classroom assistants have been shown to improve standards at Key Stage 1 testing. However, studies such as these on meeting national standards in literacy do not address the wider and more complex issues around reading and engagement of students, and around the pedagogy of literacy teaching and the limitations of having standards based education rather than supportive education that encourages children to realise their own potential. Other studies, such as one carried out recently in Ireland, show that specific programmes, such as the Reading Recovery programme, can be efficacious in improving standards, but more work needs to be done on evaluating what is described as the ‘depth’ of such approaches, meaning how they really affect student-teacher interactions and quality of experience,.
Earl and Maynard explore one potential issue in relation to reading progress and proficiency, the ‘reluctant reader’, looking at what makes children behave in this way. They examined the underlying reasons for children to develop a negative relationship with reading, and the possible resulting attitudes that they may develop towards it, and found that while the majority of children claimed to enjoy reading, in actuality, they found reading difficult, and subsequent investigation indicated that these children were not confident n their reading abilities. The study showed that self-efficacy and a sense of autonomy were potential features of improving these responses to reading. Earl and Maynard conclude that reluctant readers should be offered the opportunity to take responsibility for their own reading practice and development, to allow them to learn for themselves the value of reading. “It was also discovered that it is vital that the child's parents/carers1 are involved with helping to tackle their children's reluctance to read. Parental input is crucial to a child's education; if this input is provided at an early stage, then reluctance to read is more likely to be successfully overcome and may even offer prevention as well as cure” (p 163).
There is some research to suggest that teachers are one of the important factors affecting student outcomes in literacy. This is not just to do with their ability to use teaching skill in literacy development, but to do with other features of teaching practice.
”It is teachers’ expectations, their enacted curriculum, their classroom talk, their relations to young people and their actual ways of inducting them into specific textual practices that most affect literacy outcomes.
This would suggest that while there may be specifics of educational practice, and pupil response or individual ability, there can be things to do with teachers themselves that are as important as paying attention to reading ability. In a study by Wilkinsonit was found that teachers used theory effectively to improve the literacy outcomes of students in eight disadvantaged South Australian schools. “Teachers constructing and using theory to enhance their agency emerged as one of the key factors that made a difference to student outcomes”, which can be viewed as teachers using theory to underpin their actions, and achieving positive effect. It would seem from this study, that “teacher quality is predicated on teacher knowledge, particularly theoretical knowledge”. However, this study was carried out in Australia, within a different cultural, pedagogical and policy context, and as such would have to be replicated within a UK context to be fully transferable.
Fisher also suggests that there are features of teachers and teaching practice which may affect reading activities and reading attainment. He also suggests that despite a growing awareness and understand of sociocultural nature of language and classrooms, teachers and theorists are continuing to argue for more frequent and extended opportunities for teacher-pupil exchanges and discussions about texts, and more reciprocity in teacher-child dialogue in relation to reading and exploring texts and books. Fisher (suggests that there are studies of classroom teaching practice and activities which demonstrate the continued use of triadic dialogue, in which the teacher predominantly controls the nature and length of any interaction, and effectively closes down discussion rather than encouraging more free exploration and debate. This would seem to indicate that there is more to students developing reading skills and engaging with reading than simple pedagogical practices and activities, and much of the work around reading is still functional rather than philosophical. However, it may be that these findings simply reflect the realities of classroom practice, with deliberate control over discussions because of the need to maintain good discipline and achieve the prescribed tasks and goals of the teaching at that point. Certainly a classroom which encouraged more free debate and interaction with teachers could be viewed by some traditionalists as one in which discipline would be harder to maintain. And because of the kinds of limitations on resources, some ideal ways of addressing reading skill might not be practical.
A study by Downer (2007) shows that one to one, targeted reading and literacy support, provided by teaching assistants, could be efficacious in improving the reading abilities of pupils who were falling behind literacy standards. The study showed that as little as four minutes one to one support each day could make a difference. However, this study is about supporting children identified as having fallen significantly behind their peers and the natioanl standards for their developmental age, and might require resources that are simply not available in the majority of state schools. It also has the disadvantage of singling out the students who are demonstrating slower progress and development in reading, which is not necessarily a good thing because it highlights the difference between them and their peers. Yet it does highlight the potential value of providing targeted reading support, perhaps even 1 to 1 support, in supporting children’s reading.
Hatcher et al (2005) report a randomised controlled trial which evaluated the effectiveness of an intervention for reading-delayed children in Year-1 classes. In this, a sample of 7 children from 14 different schools, children identified as having the poorest reading ability, were randomly allocated to either of the two groups, and the 20 intervention group received the programme for two times ten weeks, the second group only for the second ten weeks. This was a small group programme, providing daily sessions of around twenty minutes, comprising small group and individual teaching. In this study, the children who received the programme during the first ten weeks made markedly more progress on outcome literacy measures, but the children who received the programme in the second 10 week period seemed to catch up with the first group. This programme, as with that described by Downer (2007), used trained teaching assistants, and found it was effective for children who showed reading delays, although around a quarter of children did not respond to the intervention. Again, this is an intervention which singles out those with less ability and provides specialist input, but it does not really address the notion of reading as a whole within the primary classroom, and, as with the previous study, singles out the poor achievers. This is no surprise, as it really reflects the predominant ideologies of national strategies for literacy.
There are a number of ways of targeting literacy, especially in poor achievers. Bunn (2008) reports a study which compared the progress in reading and spelling of 256 children in eleven classes in nine primary schools in England, located in years 3 and 4, and a partially overlapping sample of 126 children who received additional help with literacy during a single year. In this study, teachers and teaching assistants implemented either Additional Literacy Support (ALS), which is a highly structured programme of small group teaching activities and materials, developed by the English National Literacy Strategy, or they used a broad range of other materials and approaches, including other published intervention programmes, reading scheme-based, computer-based and individually designed interventions, alone or in combination with ALS. A strength of this study is that the researchers explored the influence of a broad range of contextual factors, especially whether children's qualities, school factors such as socio-economic status and class size, and delivery differences made any marked differences to the results of the different interventions in relation to reading ability. The design of the study was a naturalistic quasi-experimental design, and the author found ALS was marginally more effective than other interventions in the majority of the classes studies, however, the authors also found limitations in their ability to ‘catch up’ to their peers, and found little difference in attainment in relation to individual factors.
Another study demonstrates a targeted, home-based intervention that can be good at supporting literacy in children identified as being at risk of developing reading problems. This was the Literacy Early Action Project, which is described as a home-visiting scheme for these children, carried out by teaching assistants, which involved parents and grandparents. The study of this intervention identified five key factors which supported the child’s progress: “the flexibility in the teaching assistant's approach that enabled extended family members to become engaged in literacy support; the teaching assistant's sensitivity to family culture; the playful approach to learning adopted by the teaching assistant; putting the child at the centre of the intervention; and the existence of a school culture that strongly promoted involvement for parents”. What this shows is that not only do certain children need more support than is available in current school settings, but that the individual needs and attributes of the child are important in achieving reading standards. The nature of the intervention, therefore, must be something that would be responsive and sensitive to individual children.
Most literacy support programmes, particularly those for under-achievers, are based on phoneme-oriented strategies. Authors of one study suggest that training in phoneme awareness and letter-sound knowledge is a fundamental part of effective interventions for poor reading in the context of reading books in particular, and evaluate the UK Early Literacy Support (ELS) programme. Again, this is a study on children who were already identified as poor readers, and found that this programme offered a cost effective method of boosting 6-year-old children's reading to an average level. However, it does not address the idea of improving attitudes towards reading, rather, it focused on functional reading skill. A similar study explored why students did not respond well to phoneme-based reading support, and showed that other factors, such as letter knowledge and vocabulary were important in attaining reading competence. This study also fails to address issues in the nature of the reading materials that may affect children’s responses to reading activities.
Technological advances and the rapid development of information and communications technologies within the leisure as well as the educational sector an have effects on and provide insight into different ways of supporting reading skill development for children. Wood reports a small scale study of beginning readers using a form of ‘talking books’ software, compared to adult teaching support, using the same books in paper versions. The authors found that “there were no significant differences between the two groups in their phonological awareness attainment, with both groups showing equivalent gains from pre- to post-test. Use of specific features of the software was associated with gains in rhyme detection ability and with changes in the children's reading strategies”. While this is a small study with a limited sample, and limited transferability, it does show that children might interact slightly differently with ICT-based reading interventions, perhaps due to differences in autonomy and engagement with reading materials, although more research is definitely needed into what features of the ICT-based reading activities are most effective.
Another study describes the evaluation of a parent delivered, computer based beginning reading program. “Statistically significant treatment effects were found for Kindergarten students in the intervention group on letter-sound fluency, oral reading fluency, non-word decoding, and phonemic awareness skills. Grade 1 students in the intervention group demonstrated significant improvement over time on letter-sound fluency, letter-name knowledge, non-word decoding and oral reading fluency; however, these improvements were not significantly greater than those for the Grade 1 comparison group”. This study was implemented in pupils across the ability range, but the authors also concluded that it might be a very useful intervention for students more at risk of poor achievement in reading and literacy. It is interesting that this computer-based intervention was particularly targeted at reception and year one age students, and this author would raise the question of how well different reading programmes meet the needs of different ages. Also, it would have been good to have more detail about the computer based programme and its components. This may be a feature of these kinds of studies, that they do not really look at what it is about the programme that attracts students or engages them.
Another study outlines the use of computer software to identify reading problems and propose ways of addressing these. This is in the form of an adaptive assessment named the Interactive Computerised Assessment System (InCAS), and can be used with children of a wide age range and differing levels of ability, in order to identify specific reading problems. There are different potential formats of feedback to teachers, but overall the feedback provided also indicates how children need to improve. Such programmes may be very useful but it is difficult to see how they can improve on good teacher-student interaction, and whether or not they would help to reduce the major challenges of managing the teaching workload to improve literacy. While it is unsurprising that the programme is aimed at addressing specific reading problems, it also underlines the ongoing theoretical and pedagogical orientation towards eliminating problems rather than enhancing students’ reading experience, engagement and enjoyment. However, there is research which shows that reading can be enhanced by ICT-type reading tools and activities.
Reading is important for many reasons, not just for the child’s ability to carry out the increasingly difficult tasks which concur with their progress through school. Wallace (2008) shows how literacy an identity are strongly linked within the minds and behaviours of children, and how reading can help them to build links and connections between the children's diverse personal histories and the texts and practices validated by school. Supporting the development of reading literacy, and also engagement with reading as an activity in itself, may be a more important feature of primary schooling than is suggested by government guidance and by teaching practice and pedagogy. It may, perhaps, be more than a functional skill.
There are also some differences found within primary education between the genders,, , and between reading fiction and non fiction independently. Boys tend to be of lower reading ability than girls, , , and although they may read marginally more non-fiction than fiction, they appear to do this less carefully and with less skill. A mixed methods, but primarily ethnographic study in the North of England found that there were two different discourses around reading, both of which were gendered:
“Two main differently gendered discourses about reading were encountered. The one discourse, dominant in the ‘working class’ classroom, was strongly gendered and afforded reading low status. The other discourse encountered in the ‘middle class’ classroom was gender-inclusive and reading carried high status. It is argued that the interaction between social class and gender is important in understanding children’s discourse about reading.”
This seems to show that reading ability is based upon a much more complex interaction of factors than simply the child interacting with the set activities, and being defined as a reading ‘age’ regardless of other features of their life, personality and attitudes. The study also demonstrates the ways in which class and social context affect perceptions of reading and reinforce gender differences in literacy and attainment at this early educational level. How much any reading intervention or teaching approach to redress this balance is debateable.
Other research appears to demonstrate that the idea of encouraging reading for pleasure, rather than for necessity, is not really a part of current pedagogy and classroom practice, . In a study of secondary schools in the south of England, it was found that because of a lack of time and absence of demand for wider reading in the English curriculum, teachers expressed ambivalence about encouraging and assessing wider reading, and teachers with less experience expressed uncertainty about how to introduce and encourage this. Interestingly, it was also found that “where teachers did initiate wider reading, this was sometimes against departmental practice, a semi-illicit addition to their workload and could thus be seen almost as a form of 'bootlegging'” . This study places emphasis on the need for school children to learn to read widely rather than just because they have to, but also shows that the current approach to reading and literacy is prohibitive rather than encouraging. It would seem that current pedagogical and classroom cultures are limiting the opportunities for children to develop as individuals, in their own ways, and to engage in individual ways with reading, making their own choices. The Accelerated Reader programme appears to increase self-efficacy and motivation in primary students, but the evidence for this is limited and is based on American schools, which have a different culture to the UK. However, the interactive, ICT based nature of the programme makes it attractive to the current primary education context, particularly in enhancing cross-curricular knowledge development.
The Accelerated Reader Scheme was implemented in three classes, years 3, 4 and 5 in a primary school in an urban, deprived area. The aim was to improve reading scores, using the scheme to support students to engage more with their own reading activities and progress. It is well known that attainment levels suffer in schools with a high proportion of children who are subject to socio-economic deprivation. The Accelerated Reader Programme has been implemented with some success in a range of schools in the
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